The one thing guaranteed to give you a lift is a dazzling ray of sunshine streaming through the window, showering warmth and light! Now, I appreciate that not everyone is a heliophile (aka sun lover) like me, but I’d challenge anyone not to be cheered up by the sight of the sunshine peeping out from the dark clouds and bathing us in its rich glow.
What we call the sun is actually, of course, a star – our star – the one that sits in the centre of our solar system and brings us warmth and energy. Here on earth, we’re really very fortunate to be at just the right distance from the sun to ensure that we don’t get too hot or too cold – yep we’re in that peachy spot aka the Goldilocks zone – the area around the sun that is just right for life to thrive.
Of course, there is great variation in our climates, depending on whether you’re near to the equator (which is closest to the sun all year around) or at the polar regions, which are furthest away.
But while I might be waxing lyrical about how wonderful the sun is – let’s face facts, it’s actually a monster! The earth could fit into it 1 million times! But because of its distance from us (on average 93 million miles / 150 million km), instead of a raging ball of fire, we see a glowing round disc in our sky.
Incidentally, the sun is 400 times bigger than the moon – so why doesn’t it look much larger in the sky than our nocturnal satellite? Because it’s 400 times further away from us and so appears about the same size in the sky – incredible design!
As well as being unimaginably large, the sun is also ferociously hot – an unimaginable 5,778k – it’s a mass of hydrogen that is being converted to helium in a process called nuclear fusion. This generates incredible amounts of energy (heat). The sun shoots out solar flares from explosions that burst through its surface with a force greater than billions of nuclear bombs – hot plasma is projected for millions of miles into space. These solar projectiles can reach the earth, but fortunately for us, our atmosphere protects us from both the charged particles and radiation from these flares – phew!
Even the most devoted sun worshipper must give the sun respect – as we’ve all probably experienced, being exposed to the sun without protection can result in sunburn, dehydration and even sunstroke – no tan is ever worth that kinda burn! We also need to protect our eyes from the glare of the sun – so next time you don your shades to rock that cool look, it’s good to know that you’re giving your eyes a break too!
As well as bringing us warm, sunny days, the sun provides other delights to us, such as the Northern and Southern lights (Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis to give them their official handles). These beautiful light shows are the result of the particles brought to us by the solar winds from the sun travelling along the magnetic field of the earth’s atmosphere at the north and south poles. These particles interact with the gases in our atmosphere: oxygen dazzles us with green and red light, whilst nitrogen shimmers at us with blue and purple, producing a truly breath-taking sight. It’s not surprising that this luminal loveliness has long be the source of wonder and many folks believe that the aurora brings good luck to those fortunate to witness the exquisite spectacle.
When we think of sun in terms of weather, we immediately think of sunshine; but the way the sun affects our weather is much more than that. It’s the sun’s warmth that evaporates water from the earth’s surface to create precipitation and drive the water cycle and it’s also the sun’s warmth that causes fluctuations in atmospheric temperature, which gives us our wind. Even the fact that the earth is held in its orbit by the powerful pull of the sun’s gravity results in our annual journey around our star and creates our seasons.
As well as giving us our weather, the sun helps to feed us and even gives us air to breath. Sunshine feeds plants – by photosynthesis (a process that uses sunlight to create food for plants to grow). Fortunately, photosynthesis takes in carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, which provides breathable air for us all.
Quite simply, if there was no sun, there would be no life on earth. Whilst our very own star might be just one of over a trillion in the milky way, it really is so very important and special to us.
So let that sunshine in!